This is a long book (almost 900 pages), and it had a strange effect on me. On one hand, it seemed too long. On the other, it kept me reading and I can’t think of anything that could have been left out. This is probably because Clarke has woven a world that is familiar yet different—it is a slightly alternate history of England in the 1800’s.
It is a world in which magic was known throughout the land in centuries past, but no more. The only existing “magicians” belong mostly to societies who study magic, but do not practice—they are enthusiasts of the history of magic in England.
But Mr. Norrell comes along—a practising magician, and puts an end to the rest of them, insisting he is the only one who really understands magic and can deal with it safely. He becomes the toast of London, and people come to him to perform magic; even the government uses him in their battles against Napolean.
But another practising magician reveals himself, and Jonathon Strange becomes Norrell’s pupil. All is well until the student begins to feel that the master is holding him back. He delves into the darker sides of ancient magic, setting them against each other and imperilling the world of non-magicians.
The world that Clarke has created is rich and believable. She even includes copious footnotes that explain various references to magic, earlier events, and tales of magicians, as well as explanatory notes for those of us not schooled in the magical arts. It is a world as rich—dare I say richer—than the Harry Potter series, perhaps closer to Tolkien, though not as complex and wide-ranging, of course.
It is a novel about magic for adults, told in the Victorian novel style, and told quite well. The personal interactions, the social comedy, and the infusion of magic into a Jane Austen-type story is delightful.